Exploring Canyon Country: Tips for Families Visiting Zion National Park
Make the Most of Your Family Adventure at Zion
Zion National Park is spectacular. The scenery is amazing, there is a trail for every hiker and there are plenty of places for kids to safely explore.
So it’s no surprise the park is popular. There are certain places and times when you feel the crowds more than others. Part of the key to enjoying Zion is knowing where the crowds will be and when and planning accordingly.
This guide for visiting Zion National Park will give you all the tips you’ll need to have a fun and adventurous family trip to this beautiful slice of Utah.
1. Get an Early Start
As is almost always a rule with national parks, the earlier you can get started the more of the park you’ll have to yourself. The most popular side of the park, in Springdale, has a two lane car entrance. You can imagine that a line starts forming early; it stays manageable until 9:30 a.m. or so.
More important, most people take the park’s shuttle bus from the main visitors center to the park’s various trails, lodge and other sites. At 8:30 in the morning the wait was 20 minutes. From 10:00 a.m. on you can easily wait an hour or two during school breaks.
The same is true in the afternoon. The return shuttle get very busy around 5:00 p.m. (and the visitors center line for kids’ junior ranger badges is pretty long then, too).
2. Leave Your Car Behind
The good news is that you don’t have to drive into the park. You can easily walk if you book a hotel close to the park. You can also bike or take the Springdale shuttle bus, which runs fairly frequently.
If you really want to take the shuttle, it helps to stay at the end of town furthest from the park. That’s where the shuttles start and it’s not unusual for the them to bypass the stops closer to the park because they’re full.
There are a number of outfitters in town that rent bikes. This strategy allows you to avoid both driving to the park and taking the shuttle once you’re inside. The park shuttles can each carry two bikes, an option if you get tired. If you’re with kids, keep in mind that the bikes share the road with the park buses.
3. Bring Your Lunch
There are several places in town where you can pick up lunch provisions. We bought sandwiches and snacks at the deli next to our hotel. The picnic spots in the park are nice, and we didn’t have to worry about avoiding peak lunch hours at the lodge, which gave us more flexibility.
4. Go Where People Aren’t
This might seem easier said than done, but it’s doable with some planning. There are a handful of trails in the park that require permits, which can sometimes be available at the last minute (or ahead of time).
A family at our hotel told us they got a local tip on which of these trails would work best for their hiking ability. They showed up at the park bright and early and lucked out. They got permits that gave them a rugged but largely people-free day of hiking.
My husband and daughter took a horseback ride inside the park (if you want to do this book as far ahead as possible). The leisurely trail ride was a little underwhelming for him (fine for her), But people generally don’t hike along the horse trails and they found themselves alone with some stunning scenery.
At about 4:00 one afternoon my daughter was ready for an ice cream break. So was everyone else in the park. So we headed back out before the return shuttles got too busy and grabbed an outdoor table at a brewpub just outside the entrance. We had local beer, she had a root beer float and the view from our table was amazing.
Best of all: no crowds. And we had time for a swim at the hotel before dinner.
5. Pay Attention to the Trail Ratings
Zion’s trails range from short, paved walkways that are fine with strollers and wheelchairs to some truly heart-stopping narrow ridges. The descriptions of the trail conditions in the park’s hiking guide don’t exaggerate. When it says a trail is not for kids, is steep or has drop-offs, believe it.
For example, the Canyon Overlook and Upper Emerald Pool trails are considered moderate. But Upper Emerald has a fair bit of scrambling over rocks where you need your hands. If you’re hiking with a baby, use a backpack; we saw parents with front carriers struggling a bit.
Both trails have cliff-side paths with with sheer drop-offs. We saw quite a few tense-looking parents trying to keep their small children from carelessly running ahead. We were glad our child was old enough to understand the dangers and pay attention to where she was going.
This is not to scare you from visiting with kids. Zion is an extremely child-friendly park. Our daughter spent a lot of time climbing rocks and exploring the banks of the river. Since we were on the canyon bottom rather than the top, we felt safe letting her.
6. Enjoy Springdale
We were really pleased with this town just outside Zion’s main entrance. The hotels were not inexpensive, but we felt we got more value for our money than at hotels near other popular national parks. There were plenty of stores and services as well. And the selection of restaurants ranged from cheap burrito and pizza joints to steakhouses and stylish American cafés.
7. See the Park Beyond the Tunnel
On your way in or out of the park, be sure to cross through the tunnel to the east entrance (toward Kanab). The rock formations on this side are very different from what you see in the canyon and are absolutely stunning. Additionally, the Canyon Overlook trail is not long or steep (there are drop-offs and some scrambling, though) and it offers hands-down the best overview of Zion Canyon.
If you are short on time, you can do this hike and the Riverside Walk and have a good feel for what Zion is all about. Additional Zion hikes are icing on the cake.
For more great advice on visiting national parks and traveling with kids in general, check out FamiliesGo!